A line Lucinda Williams likes to sing that she borrowed from her poet father is: "The temporary nature of any precious thing, that just makes it more precious." It was just one of the many bits of advice, momentary musings, or poetic observations that her father, Clinton inaugural poet Miller Williams, gifted to her in his life.
On New Year's Day, Miller Williams passed away at age 84. When we spoke with her, Lucinda was doing a day of press interviews, and that's all anyone wanted to talk about. "I just did an interview right before this, and that's all we talked about, so it's just hard," she paused, causing her unmistakable, tender Southern drawl to trail off. "It's just hard to talk about, but I don't mind; we can go ahead."
In D.C., prepping for a performance at a tribute show for friend Emmylou Harris, journalists almost expected Williams to access and distribute that fresh heartache and dredge the mines of her grief because it comes across so beautifully and effortlessly in the 36-year catalog of what she calls "heartbreaker songs."
"Heartache comes from all kinds of places, like my dad's death. That's a lot bigger of a heartache than losing a boyfriend."
Miller Williams was the inspiration behind the title of her latest effort, Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone, a double album released on the label she shares with her husband, Tom Overby, called Highway 20 Records. Highway 20 Records is another nod to her father and the towns and Southern cities that sprinkled the stories of her youth. Highway 20 runs through most of them.
The album title is also a line borrowed from her father. Battling the late stages of Alzheimer's, Miller Williams was able to collaborate in this unconventional way with his daughter, even if he didn't know until it was presented to him as a gift.
"I just went ahead and did it, and then he heard it," she explained. "We were visiting him in August, and I did a concert there with my band, but he wasn't well enough to go, so I gave a little acoustic concert at their house in Fayetteville, Arkansas, and he actually read the poem, and then I sang the song, and my husband Tom videotaped it, so I have that to remember him by. And he really loved it. He was just thrilled."
Listening to Williams' alt-country Americana blues is like a geography lesson in what lies below the Mason-Dixon line; Macon, Georgia, Jackson, Mississippi, Lake Charles, and Lake Pontchartrain in Louisiana are all familiar stops along the way in her songs.
Macon, she says, will always tug at her heart the hardest, it being the one most likely to lure her away from her home in Los Angeles. "It's where I started writing my poems and stories. I've been back to play in Macon a couple of times, and there is just some kind of pull that that place has for me. And then for my dad. The first time my dad took me downtown there was a blind preacher/street singer named Blind Pearly Brown and he used to sing in downtown Macon in the early '60s and he was real raw, played a bottleneck guitar, and I was probably six-years-old and that made such an impression on me."
At 61 years old, Lucinda Williams has hit a prolific songwriting streak (there was enough material for three albums, but they settled on just two). She credits her rebel spirit and indie title to her longevity and eclectic fan base that includes artists from Elvis Costello and Flogging Molly to Yo La Tengo. "I was always a rebel," she said with a chuckle. "I still am...
"I guess it's the moral majority or something," she continued, "They kind of have a tendency to like what they hear on the radio and they don't go outside of that... I guess it's more of a mass appeal kind of thing. I mean look how many people shop at Walmart. It's cheaper. It's easier. I mean, I don't go there, but I guess it's more like that. [Mainstream country] is more accessible."
After that night's Emmylou Harris concert, Lucinda was back on the road, with dates throughout the South, including a show Saturday in Fort Lauderdale. Williams wouldn't necessarily call it as part of the "Southern" leg of her tour. When asked if she considers Florida as part of the South, she laughed. "Oh God, I can't believe you're asking me! OK, well, at one point I would've said no, but now that I've been to different parts of Florida that are closer to Mississippi, that part feels real Southern to me. Maybe not the areas that are a little touristy like Miami or where all the Northerners like to retire."
Lucinda Williams. With Noah Gunderson. 8 p.m. at Parker Playhouse, 707 NE Eighth St., Fort Lauderdale. Tickets cost $37.50 to $47.50 plus fees. Call 954-462-0222, or visit parkerplayhouse.org.
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